Judith Weinraub
June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

Qin Cheng No. 1 near Peking is a special compound in which China’s highest-ranking political prisoners are housed. Sidney Rittenberg remembers it in painstaking detail, as well he might after spending nearly 10 years there in solitary confinement. His cell measured exactly seven paces by three and a half paces; his bed was a wooden door propped on sawhorses. His meals were delivered through a hinged panel in the door. For the first four years he received only three cups of drinking water a day.

Rittenberg’s ordeal began on the night of Feb. 21, 1968. Chinese army security personnel came to his home in Peking and took him away. He was accused of being an American spy, then held without trial. “The first two years were really quite harsh,” he says placidly. “It was a sort of reign of terror, and for many prisoners there was a lot of physical violence, though I experienced very little. I found out later that some prisoners were classified as having big stories to tell, and they were to be kept in good enough shape to tell them. I was one of those.” But even Rittenberg was harassed constantly. At first, for example, prison rules required inmates to sleep with their heads turned toward a peephole in the cell door, so guards could keep watch on them easily. “By nature I’m a fidgety person,” says Rittenberg (who was nicknamed “Worm” by a teacher in grammar school). “If I turned over, the guards would bang on the door and curse.”

During his first years in prison the American was questioned morning, afternoon and night. When official interest in him flagged, he would see no one—not even his jailers—for as much as a month at a time. He was forbidden to send or receive letters, and his Chinese wife and four children were told little of his fate. Then on the morning of Nov. 18, 1977, he was given a razor and told to shave off his beard. Soon his wife appeared with a new Western suit, a pair of shoes, a silk shirt and a tie. As suddenly as it had begun, his imprisonment was over.

Remarkable though it was, Rittenberg’s trial by isolation was but one grim chapter in a career without parallel. He went to China as an idealistic young U.S. Army private in 1945 and stayed on to become the leading English-language translator in the People’s Republic. He met Mao Tse-tung several times and Chou En-lai was his friend. Twice, however, Rittenberg was caught up in political disputes not of his making, and he spent a total of 16 years under arrest. Now, at 57, he is visiting America for the first time since 1945. Despite his imprisonment, he speaks of life in China without a trace of rancor or regret and will return to Peking early this summer. After 34 years, it is home.

Born to one of the leading families of Charleston, S.C. (a grandfather served in the state legislature; his father was city council president), young Sidney grew up steeped in the philosophy of the New Deal. Acutely conscious of the plight of the poor, classmates remember that he spent half his lunch money every day in grammar school to feed orphans in his class. Later, as a teenager, he witnessed an incident that haunted him for years afterward. Walking home from a date, he saw a drunken white man attack a black on the street. Innocently, Rittenberg ran to a police cruiser. “I waited there, supremely confident,” he says, “but when the police came out of the alley they were beating the black man until he could hardly walk. I was dumbfounded.” His father had the black released, but Rittenberg couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen. “I asked my aunt about it,” he remembers. “I told her, ‘It’s so unjust!’ She said, ‘There isn’t any justice. You get what you pay for.’ ”

At military school, Rittenberg was a superior student but a rebellious cadet. Moving on to the University of North Carolina, he became a voracious reader and gave free reign to his social activist’s instincts. He joined the left-wing American Student Union, taught cotton mill workers off-campus and eventually became a union organizer. He graduated from Chapel Hill in 1940 and was married the following year. Though he tried to join the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, he was rejected because of poor eyesight. Then in 1942 he was drafted and sent to Stanford, where he studied Chinese. “I loved it,” he says. “I drank it in. I couldn’t get enough.” In 1945 he was flown into Kunming, where he was assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s office.

From the beginning, China fascinated Rittenberg. World War II was over, and the Nationalists and Communists were girding for their own showdown. Traveling through the countryside, investigating Chinese damage claims against U.S. troops, Rittenberg made important contacts and formed his own sympathies. He was appalled by the corruption of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and saw in the Communist armies an inspiring example of a working democracy. “For me,” he says, “seeing an army where you could criticize officers was fantastic.”

Discharged from the service in 1946, Rittenberg stayed on in China to work with the U.N. relief agency. His wife had divorced him, and he wanted to see how China’s political struggle would be resolved—perhaps even write a book about it. One evening, over dinner with a Communist commander, Rittenberg was asked if he would be willing to work for the new Communist radio system. “They were starting an English-language broadcast beamed at the U.S.,” he explains. “They had no one who wrote fluent English, and I was very happy to do it. That put me in the New China News Agency.”

Rittenberg’s first arrest came three years later as a result of his association with Anna Louise Strong, a renowned leftist American writer whose loyalty to Mao made her suspect in the Soviet Union. When Moscow denounced her as a “spy queen” in 1949, it branded Rittenberg her agent. At the time, Peking followed Moscow in lockstep, and Rittenberg was placed in detention. The arrangement was almost convivial. For the next six years he went for walks, did some gardening, even played cards with his amiable guards. He was allowed to read anything he wanted, though all the books were in Chinese. Stoical as always, Rittenberg seized the opportunity to become fluent in the language.

Finally, in 1955, the Soviets exonerated Anna Louise Strong. “A month or two later I was released—just like that,” Rittenberg says, snapping his fingers. Profuse apologies followed, and eventually both Premier Chou and Chairman Mao extended their personal regrets. Comparing the two men, Rittenberg describes Chou as “an extremely democratic man, unaffected and natural. He didn’t think of himself as a superior person with superior rights.” Mao was more reserved. “I saw him stoop down on the ground to talk to peasants, but he had to make a thing of it,” Rittenberg says. “He wasn’t as approachable as Chou. He was the theorist who spoke slowly and liked to think between sentences.”

Rittenberg briefly considered returning to the U.S., but was worried by what he had heard of McCarthyism and was eager to learn more about the People’s Republic. He was given a translator’s job at Radio Peking, where he met a 23-year-old secretary named Wang Yulin. With ill-advised directness, he wrote her a love letter. “Dear Comrade,” she wrote back, “I am far too young to get married, and I hope you will never bother me again with this kind of talk.” Happily for Rittenberg, she added a P.S.: “Since I’ve already agreed to go with you to Sun Yatsen Park tonight, I will keep my promise.” They were married six months later and became the parents of three daughters (now 22, 20 and 19, and all studying science or medicine) and a son (13 and in high school).

As a foreigner, Rittenberg was careful to avoid any job where he would have to give orders to Chinese workers. Nonetheless, in 1967 he found himself caught up in the Cultural Revolution. In the ensuing anarchy, he was denounced by Mao’s wife, the ambitious Jiang Qing (Chiang Ching). “In films she had been a failure,” says Rittenberg, “but as a demagogue she was terrific. She was making a grab for power and in the process abandoned all scruples. She became a degenerate.” He was put under house arrest and finally imprisoned.

“It was just so damned crooked and wrong and absurd,” Rittenberg says today, in a rare burst of passion. “One had to muster all his resources to see it through somehow.” Instead of surrendering to despair, he responded as if to a challenge. “When that door clanged behind me, I set my jaw. They were saying that Americans were spies or fair-weather friends. Well, here was one American who was going to show them it wasn’t so.” For once, though, Rittenberg’s optimism began to waver. “I was sure my case eventually would be cleared up,” he says. “I was just not sure I was going to be around to see it.”

Yulin also lost her job and, for a time, was sent to a labor camp in Henan Province, taking only her small son with her. The Rittenbergs’ daughters, left in the care of their grandmother, were ostracized until Yulin returned in 1972 and wrote a letter of protest to Chou. The premier earlier had approved Rittenberg’s request for a daily newspaper in his cell. “I tried to squeeze every drop of information out of it,” Rittenberg recalls. “It was a positive thing to apply myself to.” He learned something about Vietnam through extensive Chinese coverage of the antiwar movement in the U.S. But the term “Watergate” puzzled him. He assumed it was a scandal involving a hydroelectric project.

To his critics, Rittenberg’s faith in the People’s Republic comes suspiciously close to unreasoning zealotry. Some describe him as a figure of mystery, others as the most powerful outsider in China. His current quarters, an eight-room suite in Peking’s Friendship Hotel, and his access to a motor pool car are regarded as the perquisites of a man of great influence.

Rittenberg, however, says that while he and Yulin would prefer simpler accommodations, few are available for foreigners. He denies he was ever Radio Peking’s master propagandist, as journalists have reported. “I have never been in a decision-making role about what goes out on the air,” he says. “I can try to persuade, but whether my editor accepts or not is his prerogative.” He points out that during the Korean war and the fighting in Vietnam, when anti-U.S. broadcasts were at their most virulent, he was a prisoner whose voice had been silenced.

Despite his commitment to China, Rittenberg stubbornly holds on to his U.S. citizenship, vowing to remain as American as possible. Back in the U.S. after so many years, he has found a different country—one he believes has changed for the better. “There’s been great progress in breaking down provincialism and isolation,” he explains. “My sister spoke of her black friends with pride—this was an amazing thing to me.” He realizes, however, that U.S. racial problems are far from being solved, and he admits to being startled by the growth of crime and drugs and the disintegration of the family. “So many people here seem to feel aimless about their lives, often in the midst of considerable comfort,” he observes. “In China when you see that, it’s a dislocation from the norm.”

Though he concedes that China, too, has been shaken by social upheavals, he regards them as bizarre aberrations. With the downfall of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, he believes, the People’s Republic will vindicate the passionate faith he has placed in it. He is not, obviously, a man in whom belief dies easily. “I saw my mother in New York and she told me she thought I was dead,” says Rittenberg. “There were times when I thought so too.”

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